22 October 2021 at 1:01 pm
Today, as we mourn the one-year anniversary of the murder of environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase, we call on government, the private sector and civil society to come together to protect environmental defenders from intimidation and harm.
One year ago today, on 22 October 2020 at 18:30, four gunmen arrived at Ntshangase’s house at Ophondweni near Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal, where she lived with her 11-year old grandson. The gunmen forced themselves into her home and shot her six times. She died on the scene.
At the time, Ntshangashe was the Vice-Chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). MCEJO had been challenging the further expansion of a large coal mine at Somkhele by Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd.
Shortly before she was murdered, Ntshangase had refused to sign an agreement with the mining company, saying:
I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people.
To date, no one has been held responsible for her murder.
Environmental and human rights defenders under threat
Fikile Nsthangase’s murder is one case among many. In recent years a host of civil society and human rights organisations – in South Africa and globally – have warned that cases of physical intimidation and threats to environmental defenders are on the rise.
For example, between January 2015 and May 2021, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre recorded more than 3,100 attacks worldwide against community leaders, farmers, workers, unions, journalists, civil society groups and other defenders who have raised the alarm about irresponsible business practices.
Last year, Fikile was one of 227 people around the world who lost their lives in 2020 defending their homes, their land and livelihoods, and the ecosystems we all depend on.
In South Africa, women activists are at particular risk. Threats of violence limit their ability to move and speak freely, to occupy spaces safely, and to realise the potential of their activism. It also constrains their ability to take up leadership roles.
In recent months, tension has again been rising in the community over the proposed expansion of Tendele’s operations, and MCEJO’s opposition to that expansion. Recently, civil society organisations who participate in the Asina Loyiko campaign wrote a letter calling on the coal mining company to respect judicial process and refrain from inflammatory actions and statements.
Today, civil society recognises Ntshangase’s courage in standing up to powerful and dangerous forces, and her contribution to the environmental rights cause in South Africa.
CER mourns the senseless tragedy of Mama Ntshangase’s murder, and condemn her killing.
We call on the South African Police Service to act swiftly to arrest and prosecute her murderers.
We call on Tendele to stop its campaign of dividing and fomenting violence in the affected community of Somkhele.
We stand by all defenders of land and environmental rights, and will act to defend their Constitutional rights to life, dignity, free speech, access to justice, access to food and water, and an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing.
We also look forward towards a future in which ordinary people working for environmental and social justice do not have to risk their lives to do so.
If you are in Cape Town, please join us tomorrow, 23 October 2021, as we gather to honour Ntshangase’s legacy with a short eulogy to signal support and solidarity for those who continue to fight for our right to a healthy environment, and to demand justice for those who are intimidated, face violence and pay the ultimate cost with their lives.
When: 23 October 2021
Where: Ashley Kriel Hall, Community House, 41 Salt River Road, Salt River, Cape Town
Read groundWork’s report – Warnings not heeded – Death of an activist. The story of Fikile Ntshangase
Please also consider signing an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, calling for #JusticeForFikileNtshangase.